Chagall at Tudeley
A couple of miles up the road from where I grew up in Kent is a little church in the village of Tudeley. The church is quite compact – about half the size of our chancel. From the outside, it looks like any average little hamlet chapel. But you wander in to an astonishing sight.
Every window in the church, from great big panes of light, to tiny peep holes, was designed by the Russian-Jewish artist Mark Chagall. Almost all of them are a rich and deep marine blue, with blends of burgundy and bottle green, and the little church is bathed in an intense colour. There’s an overwhelming experience, as you cross the threshold, of having entered a different sort of space. You feel immersed, surrounded, swallowed, which, as we’ll see, is a significant part of the effect. The windows have a way of surrounding you and won’t let you go. They weigh heavily on the space. And that’s not simply a weight of colour and design. There’s far more to these windows, as always with Chagall; a density of symbolism and encounter.
Among the many windows, the East Window was the first and most notable (click here to see a picture of the Tudeley East Window). It is a window birthed in tragedy. In 1963, Sarah d’Avigdor-Goldsmid, the daughter of the local baronet Sir Henry and his wife Lady Rosemary, drowned off the coast of Sussex, following a boating accident. Sarah was aged just 21. Her parents commissioned Chagall to design the window in her memory. What Chagall did, remarkably, was memorialise her death.
What I see in that East Window is a remarkable exercise in the nature of suffering, and the interaction of human tragedy with the reality of Christ’s death and victory on the cross. It is a carefully composed centrepiece that asks us to face the depths of an abiding experience of grief, and to be faced with that grief each time we remember the grief of God, in broken bread and wine outpoured. But the window also shows a bigger picture – one that does not shut out the pains of our past, and the wounds in our hearts – and you’ll notice, when we come to it, that the scene of Sarah’s death still takes up over half of the window – but the bigger picture asks us to frame our grief and suffering on the centrality and promise of a God who, in Christ, is both suffering and victorious, broken and yet glorious, wounded but risen and standing among us to breathe Peace.
At the base of the window in the centre, we see a figure lying buried within the waters: Sarah, consumed by the sea. At the bottom right, a figure weeps while watching out to sea: perhaps her mother, Lady Rosemary, envisaged much like a Mary watching at the cross, Stabat Mater dolorosa. Or perhaps, placed where she is, she is like the on-looking pitiful pilgrim attentive to the window’s action, a call to the viewer to likewise kneel and grieve a while; a call to us to enter the very thing we are seeing.
To the top left of the lower ocean section, we see a mother figure again, this time cradling the child, her baby girl held close: she holds her with the pain that is always the inevitable result of love, yet a pain amplified so greatly by tragedy. ‘And a sword will pierce your own soul too.’
To the right, again, a white figure rises, almost baptismally, out of the waters, arms outstretched, cruciform, moving towards the ladder that leans against Christ’s cross – a familiar figure in Chagall’s work, including his other crucifixion scenes. Jacob’s ladder, the portal to heaven. This heaven, to which the ladder leads us, is right at the heart of Jesus’ outstretched arms, victorious and sovereign at the top of the composition – young and glorious, as one commentator puts it. He, still wounded and bloodied, yet transformed, is the hope to which Sarah rises as she sets out on the ladder; a hope that is still honest about, and is still shaped by, the moment of his, and her, deepest darkness and abandonment. As she climbs, she passes the rider on the red horse – a red, which, Chagall tells us, stands for nothing more nor less than happiness.
What I think Chagall offers us so well is a vision that holds together the devastation of a painful tragedy with a vision of hope and renewal. He suggests the real possibility of the transformation of human loss, a loss that seems pretty integral to humanness; yet there is no glimmer of forgetting or diminishing the gravity and depth of that suffering. We see here an invitation to let our suffering be a sharing in hissufferings, a way of becoming like him, just as, in suffering, he becomes like us. The stories of our lives are drawn up into the reality of Christ: that includes our death and our life, our fear and our freedom, our shame and our glory.
What has, for years, spoken to me, and stayed with me, about this scene of Chagall’s, is not the detail of what it all might convey in its parts or its whole, but rather the experience of sitting in that still, small church, immersed in the colour and pain and hope of those windows shining through.
One of the glories of stained-glass is its capacity literally to shine; to glow with a glory that hits you – the images almost reach out to you; there’s a depth of communication, of the energy of light and life that bursts or glows through. We often think of windows like this as things that present themselves to us – objects we get to look at. And there are many dull church windows that do no more than this. But at their best – and this is what, I think, Chagall got right – the windows provide ways in which we can let ourselves be seen.
What it must be like, week in week out, for that congregation in Tudeley to be confronted by the memory of a particular tragedy I can’t begin to comprehend – but it offers us a glimmer of what it is to be seen with all our regrets and betrayals, our tragedies and despair, to face and own and name and, yes, to memorialise them, because pain needs memory if it is ever to be transformed.
Each time we celebrate the Eucharist, we remember, we rehearse our memory over, the Passion of Christ – his suffering, and scourging and slow death. And we are given a chance to open our hands and our heart afresh, to bring our wounds, our burdens, our spoiled hopes, and the griefs than simply won’t go away.
And as we remember all that is deepest in the pain of being human, in the tragedy of love, we are offered the grace to learn that even in thatplacewe are not lost; even those hurts are not beyond healing.
We are called, invited, to begin to let the light shine through, to let Christ, in his desolation, see us just as we are, and show us that we are part of his story too, in our pain. And if we share in its pain, then we also share in its vision of glory, in the light, the life, the hope and mercy and forgiveness, that with outstretched arms in the throes of pain and death, Christ speaks and makes our own.
The cross, at the centre of our faith, casts out the fearfulness that buries our grief and our suffering, and breathes the freedom not to get lost in them either, but to allow the light to shine through them, like a window, slowly, softly, to show us towards something like redemption.